Generations ago, you might
be hard-pressed to walk across a flourishing vineyard and find a
woman winemaker at its helm. But today in Oregon Wine Country, home
to 250 of the state’s 393 wineries, female vintners are establishing
themselves more and more as leaders and visionaries of the industry.
So what does it take to become a successful woman winemaker? What obstacles do
females face as they enter and establish themselves among their well-known male
counterparts? Three vintners share their experiences, triumphs and tribulations
as pioneering woman winemakers of the Willamette Valley.
Although it’s often said that wine is the heart of the Willamette Valley,
locals agree the real heart is found in the people. Let’s meet some jeans-clad
lady vintners who makes wine for craft instead of pomp and who share a special
connection with Oregon Wine Country.
Windy Path to the Winery
Linda Lindsay, Stone Wolf Vineyards
Linda Lindsay claims her path to Stone Wolf Vineyard was pure accident. As a
young girl, Lindsay’s father had worked in the wine industry as a sales
executive, so she’d grown up drinking the “good stuff” around
her family’s dinner table. Years later, working as a successful real estate
agent and restaurateur, Linda and her husband helped a friend manage and harvest
his McMinnville vineyard. Linda eventually inherited the property, and, in 1996,
the legend of Stone Wolf was born.
Recent media coverage has acknowledged Stone Wolf as a major player in the national
wine scene after only a relatively short number of years in production. Lindsay
is humble in response to the attention.
“We got really, really lucky,” she said. “It gets tougher
every year. There are more and more competitors coming in and it’s become
an international battle. We’re going up against the big boys for shelf
Sandee Piluso, Piluso Vineyard and Winery
Sandee Piluso’s introduction to wine was anything but accidental, growing
up in a Central Valley, Calif., cattle-raising family. Always one to have her
hands in the dirt, Piluso grew up in wine country – passing vineyards every
day on her way to school. The close proximity soon gave way to a personal passion
After moving to Oregon in the 1970s, Piluso discovered Pinot noir and met a city
boy, whom she would later convince to embrace a rural lifestyle among fledgling
grape vines. The two found acreage in Aumsville, a small town in Marion County,
where they worked hard to produce some of the best dessert wines and other varietals
in the region.
“We’ll always be small,” said Piluso, “because we really
like having a hands on, vine-to-glass experience.”
Patty Green, Patricia Green Cellars
Patty Green may have dropped into the winemaking industry from a former vocation
of reforestation, but she has certainly paid her dues. After years of planting
trees across Alaska and Washington, she convinced a friend at Hillcrest Vineyards
to let her pick grapes. By 1987, she was working as an assistant winemaker and,
only four years later, Green was consulting and working crush with a variety
of vineyards. In 1993, she began as winemaker and sole employee of Torii Mor
Winery in Dundee.
“At Torii Mor, I did everything. Working the vineyard, making the wine,
doing the books, everything,” said Green, “And I always appreciated
that because it was a great education to learn how every aspect is related. I
was lucky enough to really understand all the different components that go into
this business, down to the forklift repairs, from my own experience, and that’s
influenced my business tremendously.”
After Torii Mor, Green went on to open her own winery, Patricia Green Cellars,
in Newberg, which she continues to own and operate.
A Woman’s Touch
All three woman vintners have found success in their own niche markets, as well
as across the West Coast’s crowded wine industry. But it hasn’t always
been easy. Each has experienced significant challenges—from distribution
to marketing to poor harvests—and with each challenge, a lesson learned.
What has their experience been working among men? Do they believe that women
experience any advantages or disadvantages in the industry because of their gender?
“I do think women approach winemaking differently then men,” said
Lindsay, with little hesitation. “We’re nurturers, which plays out
with the wines and with the grapes. Our senses are heightened, smelling and tasting,
which is important.”
Piluso agreed, “I’ve been working in a man’s world for a long
time, standing right beside them and doing a better job. I’ve never felt
like I had to prove myself to anyone but myself. It’s a woman’s world,
you can try anything. We have an edge, because we have a better sense of taste
and smell—and a better sense of intuition. Those are pluses to making a
And it’s not just the women who believe they may have a sensory advantage.
Ever wonder who was behind those clever Patricia Green Cellars t-shirts that
read “Women Taste Better”?
“My business partner‘s theory is that women can taste better,” said
Green. “We were sitting around at harvest one night and we were tasting
a bunch of wine. He was talking about women’s olfactory senses. While we’re
talking about all of this, I raised my glass and said “Women taste better” and
he said, “It’s a T-Shirt!”
Good Luck and Good Advice
These humble vintners often credit their successes to good luck and
timing, but it is also keen business sense and raw passion for the
soil and for the grapes that has enabled each to sustain a thriving vineyard.
For Lindsay, marketing and distribution have been key components
of Stone Wolf’s
accomplishments. “We got very lucky with our label design. Stone Wolf jumps
right off the shelf. A label can really make or break you,” she said. “New
[winemakers] coming in may not have a clear understanding or a business plan
in place. How are they going to sell it? They just know they want to make a $40
dollar bottle of Pinot.”
Keeping perspective and patience are two virtues Piluso advocates
for up-and-coming vintners. “Think about how you see yourself realistically.
You may have to step back a step or two before going forward again.”
Patty Green’s encouragement is, perhaps, more guttural. “Don’t
be afraid of your intuition and don’t second guess yourself. A lot of times
when you’re in the thick of it, your first reaction is the right one. Don’t
wait. If you feel like you need to do something, don’t wait. Not with wine.
Trust yourself. Frequently, I work off my gut feelings.”
The Welcoming Willamette Valley
Each of these women may extol varied business strategies; they may harvest grapes
out of separate plots of land and prefer different variations of Pinot. However,
they can all agree that their roads to the top would not have been possible if
not for the community and camaraderie of the Willamette Valley wine industry.
And as new graduates of viticulture programs and aspiring city folk work hard
to get their feet in the doors of the Willamette Valley winemaking culture, established
vintners welcome them into their tasting rooms with open arms and freshly uncorked
“It’s unusual the way we all play nice here,” said Lindsay,
laughing. “We’re kind of an incubator for new [vintners] coming in.
Four [male] winemakers are in my cellar right now, trying to learn and start
their own. We provide space and mentorship here.”
Piluso articulates the simplicity of the Valley and its welcoming culture well, “The
thing is, you can take the same grapes and do the same thing to them and they’ll
turn out different,” she said. “No one is trying to copy each other;
it’s all about the artful expression of the fruit.”
Even with international pressure mounting, Green agrees the Willamette Valley’s
reputation for community is maintained by its vintners. “There are big
guns coming in,” she said, “and that’s always going to change
the feeling. But there’s a cool bunch of people here. We taste each other’s
cellars…we’re all in the same soil.”
For those who have a love of good wine but prefer to sit back and sip the fruits
of another’s labors, the Willamette Valley women winemakers always have
their door open. Most Willamette Valley wineries include tasting rooms open to
the public. Lindsay’s Stone Wolf tasting room is located conveniently in
downtown McMinnville, operated by those who have had a hand in the winemaking
process so they can speak knowledgably about the wines visitors are tasting. “Customers
comment about what a great experience [it is] to be able to chat with a member
of our winemaking team, and feel passion and excitement,” said Lindsay. “Quite
often…I take care of guests in the tasting room…We work as a team
here and I believe it shows.”
Piluso Vineyards has a quaint farmhouse tasting room and a Vintner’s Garden,
a favorite of visitors during the summer season. Wine is not made onsite, although
guests are encouraged to learn about Piluso’s unique viticulture practices
and winemaking philosophy. “I am here at our tasting room most all of the
time to answer questions about wine and what we do here that makes our wines
special,” said Piluso, “We farm sustainably and are proud of the
wines we have produced.”
Although Patricia Green Cellars does not have a designated tasting room, visiting
wine lovers are encouraged to stop in or make an appointment for a few sips.
With a laid back atmosphere and unpretentious introduction, Green, herself, will
introduce visitors to fresh wines from the most recent harvest
And with more and more woman winemakers embracing the trade and gaining ground
among neighboring male-led vineyards, it is safe to say that visitors to the
Willamette Valley have the pleasure of meeting and enjoying the works of winemakers
of many varietals and of both genders.
Like these pioneers − real without trying − there’s something
to be said about a place that’s full of ingenuity and authenticity. In
this valley of farms and fields, vineyards and vistas, townships and trails,
Green, Piluso and Lindsay found the life they want to live right here. And
with open arms, they invite you to experience a delicious taste of their world,
if only for a weekend.